Nancy Dubuc isn’t afraid to stick her neck out. She did, after all, launch unconventional tough-guy series like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men on History, a network that was once best known for grainy World War II footage and talking-head documentaries. Her rallying cry to her troops has always been clear: Take chances.
But even she wasn’t sure about a new show idea that would eventually become Top Shot. It would be the channel’s first foray into reality competitions, a genre that carries with it considerable baggage for the way it’s often practiced on TV. The shows—think Celebrity Apprentice, Big Brother—can be petty, negative and, well, bitchy. For the heavily male-skewing History, would a series like that take hold?
In the plus column, Top Shot was inspired by two previous specials, Extreme Marksmen and Sharpshooters, both of which drew big audiences interested in seeing expert shootists reproduce the most legendary shots from history and fiction.
“We know our viewers love this subject. But we have no track record with competition shows, and we don’t know if the male audience will connect with it,” says Dubuc, president and general manager of the History networks. “It’s definitely a creative risk, but I think it’s one worth taking.”
Top Shot, which premieres June 6, illustrates not only Dubuc’s propensity to listen to her gut and trust her team but also her gimlet eye on what airs on her network. She went through the series format with a fine-tooth comb, says Craig Piligian, executive producer, whose Pilgrim Films & Television developed the show from a rough idea from the History programming team. (It said: Competition space. Guns.)
“Not many network presidents go beat by beat and look at rough cuts,” Piligian adds. “She’s very hands on, but at the same time, she unleashes us to do our jobs.”
That combination of keen oversight and light touch has served Dubuc well at History. In just three years at the helm, she’s catapulted it into the top 10 among all ad-supported cable networks—it’s now at No. 4—and in the first quarter landed it at No. 7 in the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic.
Dubuc has just been named president and general manager of the Lifetime Networks, more than doubling her duties in the A&E Television Networks group. She’ll be taking over a once-dominant brand that still has considerable equity as one of cable’s early leaders, but these days has a fuzzy identity and falling ratings. She will be responsible for strategic planning, programming, consumer marketing, publicity and brand development at the group, which includes the flagship channel and Lifetime Movie Network.
Dubuc’s success at History, where she’s known as a highly competitive, no-nonsense executive with an uncanny ability to zero in on the zeitgeist, made her a logical choice to lead the Lifetime reinvigoration, though the networks couldn’t be temperamentally further apart.
“She’s the total package,” notes Abbe Raven, AETN president and CEO. “She’s very strategic, she’s very good at reaching out to producers and creators, and at the same time, she’s very business- and bottom line-oriented.”
History averaged 1.81 million total viewers in prime time in April and grew its nightly deliveries by 58 percent (over the year-ago period), with the help of original unscripted series Pawn Stars and the first installment of the six-night special America: The Story of Us.
That celebrity-heavy event programming broke History ratings records with 5.7 million total viewers on April 25, the most watched program ever on the channel.
Dubuc says it’s an example of a risky decision on the part of the A&E group to invest in tentpoles at a time when many other networks have retrenched because of the ongoing recession and lousy ad market. “We didn’t cannibalize our programming budget,” she adds. “America is a big topic, so it had to be produced big.”
The network also posted its best numbers in April among adults 25-54, growing 59 percent to a third-place 893,000 viewers and showing that the core target hasn’t fled as the programming modernized. History also finished fourth among the 18-49 demo (up 59 percent) and claimed seventh place among the 18-34 group (a 66 percent jump).
In the first quarter of this year, History improved its nightly average by 14 percent to 1.5 million viewers. Versus the year-ago period, the channel saw both its delivery of adults 18-49 and 25-54 target demos grow 17 percent apiece.
Many of those younger viewers tune in for Ax Men and Ice Road Truckers, which come from Thom Beers’ Original Productions. Beers, known for his everyday hero/manly man shows, says he’s hugely impressed at the turnaround Dubuc orchestrated at History. “She’s made it a destination network,” he notes. “She’s prescient.”
She’s also intense and driven, her colleagues add, which one would think wouldn’t bother a macho guy like Beers, who’s working on several more series for History, including an Ice Road Truckers spinoff called Extreme Trucking. Truth is, he quakes in his boots just a little when he deals with Dubuc.
“She’s a task master—she makes it known from the beginning that she expects a hit TV series,” Beers explains. “She’s one of the few execs in the world who can intimidate the crap out of me.”
It may be more respectful than playful, then, but the two have had a quirky show-themed gift exchange going for years where each tries to outdo the other. The most recent gift from Dubuc to Beers was a hand-forged custom-made ax to celebrate Ax Men’s 50 percent ratings growth this past season. That followed a four-foot-long remote control big rig with the Ice Road Truckers logo emblazoned on the side that Beers gave Dubuc. It takes up considerable space in her office, but she won’t admit to taking it for regular spins.
Though she may just admire the tchotchke from across the room, Dubuc says that Ice Road Truckers was a tipping point in History’s rejuvenation, and that putting the series on the air was likely the best decision she’s made at the network.
“It sent a message to the creative community that History was going to be aggressive and would be a place for great collaboration and great creativity,” she notes. “The show woke people up because we’d been so narrowcast before.”
Ice Road Truckers and others, like Pawn Stars companion American Pickers, also have been points of contention for purists. Jeffrey McCall, media professor at DePauw University in Indiana, wonders if these series are off-message.
“The current management certainly pulled History out of the doldrums and got attention for the channel, but is it history anymore?” he said. “For any cable network, it seems to be all about getting eyeballs however they can. Still, you can’t argue with the short-term success at History.”
Before History, Dubuc was senior vp, programming at A&E, where she supervised the nonfiction slate and developed first-of-their-kind series like Growing Up Gotti, Inked and Intervention. It was during that network’s rejuvenation that she and Mel Berning, now AETN’s evp, national ad sales, started working together.
“Those shows were a wild departure from where the network had been and for longtimers there, probably a frightening departure,” Berning recalls. “But in pretty short order, A&E dropped 10 years off its age.”
The network took some heat at the time, as History has since, for deviating from its perceived mission statement. Berning dismisses the criticism as a narrow view of the brands and a misread of the market. “To be valuable to advertisers, you have to reach a large, high-quality audience,” Berning explains. “You can compete with contemporary, watercooler kinds of shows or you can go out of business.”
Shedding History’s brainy, professorial image has helped draw in a whole new set of advertisers, Berning says, including McDonald’s, Electronic Arts, Kia, Harley Davidson and MillerCoors. Those join the traditional marketers on the network such as Bank of America, GM, P&G and Pfizer.
“Buyers are looking for compelling programming, good stories on demos and, to a certain extent, environment,” says John Miles, director of investments at media buying firm Mediacom. “As History has broadened, there are clients looking at it who never did before.”
Now, Dubuc will need to turn her attention to a Lifetime revamp where, as at A&E and History previously, there are building blocks already in place, although the audience has eroded and the brand has become indistinct. The network, with its traditional strength in movies and some scripted series, needs to develop more hits, and Dubuc says she’ll look to the reality genre for chat-worthy shows.
“Advertisers still see it as a viable option—it’s still a top network,” argues Donna Speciale, president of investment at MediaVest, whose clients include P&G, Kraft, Mars and Capital One. “But she needs to put it back on the pedestal it was once on. She’ll need to shake it back to life.”
Once a top-five network in audience delivery, Lifetime’s ratings with its core female demos have dropped by double-digit percentages—30 percent in women 25-54 and 27 percent in 18-49. It went from a sixth-place ranking in total viewers in 2005 to No. 15 in 2009. During that time, Lifetime’s average nightly draw fell 32 percent. A few scripted series stand out, like Army Wives and original movie The Pregnancy Pact. (The latter was the top-rated original movie in Lifetime’s history among its key women demos, averaging 5.86 million total viewers, 1.37 million women 18-34 and 2.48 million women 18-49.) But blocks of off-network repeats and original sitcoms haven’t taken hold.
“She’ll need to get to the essence of that brand and develop programming that speaks to a very specific audience,” Raven says. “And speaking directly to an audience is certainly one of Nancy’s strengths.”
And she always has that ax.